Farm Poll: Farmer Philanthropy Important to Community Development

AMES, Iowa — Iowa’s farmers are substantially involved in philanthropy, donating their time and money to organizations, causes and charities they believe in, according to the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll. Many rural communities are beginning to depend on these philanthropic efforts as an important part of local community and economic development.

Iowa Farm and Rural life Poll“We wanted to learn more about farmers’ perspectives on philanthropy,” said Paul Lasley, a sociologist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Lasley co-directs the annual Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll with J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., another ISU Extension and Outreach sociologist.

“In the 2011 Farm Poll we asked farmers about the frequency and financial range of their giving, their underlying motivations and favored causes and whether they intended to leave a bequest to a charitable cause,” Lasley said. Analysis of the data is presented in a new report, The Role of Farm Families in Local Community Philanthropy (PM 3049). It’s available for free download from ISU Extension and Outreach.

Higher Giving Level among Farmers

More than 1,200 farmers participated in the 2011 Farm Poll, said John Ferrell, a doctoral research assistant in the ISU Department of Sociology. Eighty-nine percent of farmers reported that they had donated money to a cause in the previous year, and 80 percent had volunteered their time to some kind of charity. Overall, 91 percent of farmers had donated time or money to an organization, cause or charity, including churches and religious groups.

“This proportion is far higher than percentages found in recent surveys of the general public, which generally find that between 70 and 75 percent of Americans donate time and money to charity,” Ferrell noted.

Lasley suggested that the higher giving level among farmers is directly related to the legacy of neighboring in rural communities and the philosophy of self-help.

“Farmers tend to live out the axiom ‘if it’s going to get done, we have to do it ourselves,’” Lasley said.

Roots in Self-Help, Collaboration

Historically rural community development was rooted in self-help and collaboration. People organized informally because that was part of “being a good neighbor,” Lasley explained. They cooperated to build schools and churches and string early electrical lines because they believed that helping each other was the only viable way to make community improvements. They invested in their own community to address gaps in services, improve infrastructure and meet local needs.

Today cities have urban planners, grant writers and paid staff to make necessary community improvements. However, many rural communities don’t have the funds to pay professional staff and rely upon volunteers who donate time and money to make sure that community needs are addressed. The success of community foundations and other rural development philanthropy organizations depends to a large extent on involving local people who are willing and able to give of their time, money, assets, expertise and other resources. Without the support of farmers, many communities would find it even more difficult to meet local needs, Lasley said.

“While the Farm Poll findings may not apply to all rural places, in the Corn Belt and particularly within Iowa — a state with more than 800 small communities — there seems to be a close connection between farmers who generally live in the country and their support of the local community,” Lasley said. “These findings may reflect the tradition that neighboring has defined small communities and the close association between community viability and the surrounding farm population. Many farm families worship, work and shop locally and they understand the importance of their volunteer time and financial resources in maintaining the vibrancy of their community.”

About the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll

Conducted every year since its establishment in 1982, the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll is the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation. ISU Extension and Outreach, the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the Iowa Agricultural Statistics Service are all partners in the Farm Poll effort.

The Role of Farm Families in Local Community Philanthropy (PM 3049) and other Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll summary and topical reports are available to download from the ISU Extension and Outreach Online Store,, and Extension Sociology,